Oppressive or permissive?

Dream of unity faces huge gap of perception

Jul 20, 2015 by

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Is this how the dream of a big-tent church dies? We hope not. But it seemed to some that Mennonite Church USA’s vision of unity in diversity went on life support at the Kansas City convention.

The church is now “officially stuck,” as one delegate said in an interview with MWR. A middle-way compromise that tried to satisfy everyone may have pleased too few.

For some progressives, the forbearance resolution — the most tolerant statement on same-sex relationships ever adopted by MC USA — wasn’t enough. The most vocal advocates of gay and lesbian inclusion seemed not to acknowledge the progress it represents and the freedom it allows.

For some conservatives, the Membership Guidelines resolution — reaffirming the traditional stance on marriage and saying those whose actions vary from it must be called to account — wasn’t enough. They seemed to take little satisfaction from this declaration, nor put much faith in the mandate for greater accountability.

In the middle were those who made unity their top priority and voted for both resolutions. They did this even though it is virtually impossible to enthusiastically support two such divergent documents. Their desire to be bridge-builders is commendable. They put a desire for unity above personal preference. At the same time, it was hard to argue with anyone who said the gulf between the two resolutions was too wide for any bridge to cross.

But the gap between resolutions was no wider than the one between the most staunch progressives and conservatives. They walked the same convention halls but inhabited different worlds. To one, the church is an oppressor that silences dissent and denies dignity to the marginalized. To the other, it is a permissive institution that tolerates sin and doesn’t enforce its rules.

When people look at the same church and see completely different things, is there any hope of keeping them together?

On the delegate floor, some dared to hope. Perhaps that was because many had positive experiences, if not always easy ones, in their table groups. Dorothy Nickel Friesen, who served as a “conversation coach,” told MWR she heard overwhelming appreciation for the groups of eight or nine often very diverse people.

Richard Gehring, moderator of Western District Conference, described his table’s experience in the conference’s email newsletter, Sprouts: “We spoke from the heart, sharing our convictions regarding the truth of Christ to the best of our understanding. We listened to one another. We wept with one another. We prayed with and for one another. We laughed with one another. And we wept with one another some more.

“The table thus became a sacred space where Jesus was palpably present. I am convinced that all of us are deeply committed to faithfully following Christ. . . .

“I doubt that any of us ultimately changed our minds regarding the significant topics we discussed and voted on. We may not have been right in all our decisions. But I hope that we all came to a better understanding of why our brothers and sisters hold different viewpoints. I know that was true for me. And I hope that we can continue to be the church together even in the midst of our differences.”

To preserve as much unity as possible in MC USA, members will need to nurture in their congregations and conferences the respect and understanding that grew from table experiences like Gehring’s. They will need to take to heart the resolution to forbear.

Those frustrated by the denomination’s slow pace of change can forbear by recognizing that this is simply what one can expect from a traditionally conservative denomination. But many believe the time will come when the sexuality issues that confound the church today will be largely resolved. Acceptance of gay and lesbian Christians will be commonplace, even in denominations such as MC USA. And then our children will try to repair the damage we have done.

Many in the church continue to hope that those on both sides of this conflict will accept less than their idea of perfection and embrace different kinds of faithful congregations. Recognition of everyone’s desire to be faithful is one thing both sexuality resolutions have in common.

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